Caspian Bistro - MSP
After attempting to go to Lemongrass Thai at 8:15 on a Saturday night and finding their doors locked (they close at 9 PM), my date Mr. C and I were hard pressed to find another dinner spot. After some deliberation, we decided on the Caspian. The Caspian is located on the U of M East Bank, off of Dinkytown. It has been there for some years, as I recall some curiosity about it in my early 20's. All I knew of the place is that it is Iranian/persian food. So off we went!
Being across from the Days Inn, it's easy to find. We found parking just fine, and entered through the back. The decor inside seems authentic and unique to anything I've seen in middle eastern-type restaurants before. Large paintings adorn the wall with traditional scenes of native people, and beautiful paintings on the wall itself of the native women. Inside and just next to the dining area, there is a small grocery. It was halfway full, and seemed to be a majority of natives, so I will admit I felt out of place but was intrigued instead of shy.
Upon reviewing the menu and looking around, it seemed that tea is a beverage of choice. They do not serve alcohol, but you can bring your own wine. Alas, I was not thirsty for tea, but they offer a Darjeeling blend. Darjeeling is my favorite tea, so I will have try this at some point. The menu was a little confusing, as I'm not completely familiar with this type of food. They have some of your standard middle eastern fare (hummous, falafael, stuffed grape leaves) and some things I've never quite heard of (persian stew aka Koresh, served over "crusty rice" as an appetizer, vegetable pies ) Most of their entrees were similar in the fact that they were some sort of meat, mostly in the form of kebob, with rice (regular or dill), and a grilled tomato, which (as a newbie) puzzled me. I was pleased to see they have a LOT of chicken dishes, also beef, lamb and sirloin. All have variations of whole, ground, or blends.
For our appetizer, we decided on the falafael, which comes with tabouli, yogurt and pita. I've never had falafael before, but am familiar with it from afar. For our entree's, Mr. C ordered the caspian supreme, which is a ground beef/lamb mixture kabob and also a sirloin kabob, with regular rice and the grilled tomato. I ordered the chicken special, which is chicken pieces flavored with lemon and saffron, and I opted for the dill rice. We were served a salad first, which was quite lackluster. It had all things I dislike, iceberg wedge-y lettuce, dressing too oily and too acidic, and just kind of dumped together with a tomato and cucumber slice. I don't expect dinner salads to be main course stunners, but I do expect them to make me want to eat more.
Please keep in mind I've never had falafael before. But these seemed dry. I tried them alone, and I also put them on pita with tabouli and yogurt, which was better. The tabouli was parsley heavy, and not bright or light like I'm used to. The yogurt was good and tangy - like a sour cream almost. All together, the food was good. Individually, they weren't great. I have to go with my own tastes here, as I admittedly don't "know food", and I just wasn't wowed with flavor, spices, or textures.
Mr. C's Caspian Supreme meat was very flavorful - one side being the beef/lamb combination and the other being the sirloni. I found the beef/lamb to be tender, savory and flavorful. The sirloin was chewy, but good. Both were moist, and not over-spiced.
My dish was not as successful. The chicken was predominately lemon flavored. No savory, delicate saffron was detected. The chicken was also dry. Very dry, to the point where you need to drink something with every bite. The dill rice however, was lovely. It was cooked perfectly, and had a generous sprinking of fresh chopped dill over the top. On each side of the mountainous rice pile sat a little pat of butter. The dill flavor came through, but didn't punch me in the face, and blended very well with the rice and butter. I would go back just for this rice. The grilled tomato still confused me. I realize this is a traditional serving with a Persian .meal, but don't know it's purpose. I ate one bite plain and it was nice; smokey, tangy, and juicy. But then I attempted to eat more.... and it's just what you'd imagine eating a mushy tomato would be like. I don't know any Persian people, so any enlightenment would be nice.
I've been to great middle eastern (Greek, Lebanese) restaraunts, and some terrible ones. I would put Caspian in the middle. While I was glad to see that they didn't over-spice/garlic/salt any of the dishes, I also feel they were lacking something. A tad more depth perhaps? And I wish my chicken would have been more moist and with a hint of saffron blended with a delicate lemon aftertaste? This may not be The Caspians fault however, as my gut initially told me to go with the lamb shank in tomato garlic-herb sauce. Next time I visit, I will!
I don't think The Caspian has a website?
2418 University Ave SE, Minneapolis, MN 55414
Green, thanks for the review, I haven't seen mention of this place in quite a while. I would say you should have sent back the dry chicken....and asked for something else. Dry chicken is inedible in my opinion, and all too common. And it is the Caspian's fault for overcooking it, although listening to your 'gut' is a good idea too....
It's not bad. I remember going there a while back. I must've had the chicken something. But I do remember that it was really expensive. For persian, I guess it's middle of the road. The only other persian I've tried is Shiraz. Which was pretty good.
Oh, and another thing about Caspian. Those waitresses were beyond gorgeous. At least back then. Don't know about now.
Next time, try the ground chicken kabobs - they're excellent. The "pieces of chicken" kabobs are often overcooked, alas. When they were first added to the menu, they were undercooked (we sent back several orders), so I think they're overcompensating.
FYI, dry chicken is greatly improved by liberal application of sumac (powdered dark-red spice with a lemony tang). Or listen to your gut - the lamb shank is nice, too. The lentil soup is delicious, but very filling - it's great for lunch with a lahmajun (not unlike a flatbread pizza) on the side.
And if you're with a group, try the "rice crust" appetizer - it's the crusty layer of rice at the bottom of the pot, covered with butter and spices. Lovely but too rich for just two or three people.
P.S. I love the grilled tomato - we usually ask for extras!
You eat the grilled tomato with rice and with your kabobs. I usually just cut some tomato and eat it with a bit of rice, a piece of meat and some sumac.
The rice crust you're referring to is called tadik and it is one of the most delicious things ever. I have to say that I had it at the Caspian and wasn't thrilled. Perhaps it's better at Shiraz.
As for the falafel, well...falafel might be "standard" Middle Eastern fare, as you put it, but it certainly is not Persian food by any stretch of the imagination. I would guess that like other immigrant groups whose cultures are under represented, sometimes Persian restaurants include things on their menus to appeal to a broader notion of what is "Middle Eastern." All that to say, I'm not surprised the falafel wasn't great.
(P.S. I'm Iranian.)
re: pistachio peas
That is true. Persian food is a lot of stews and sauces over rice. Kabobs too, which falls into Arab. I remember eating Fesenjan and they offered an accompaniment of warm yogurt and onions. That yogurt reminded me of a proto-indian curd dish called mooru (at least that's what my family calls it). I think they call it kadhai in north india.
A lot of basmati rice too. Very similar.
Here's another vote for the ground chicken kabobs (Chicken Koobideh or "Choobideh" as they call it at Caspian). There is also an appetizer called TAH DIG which I'm not sure is on the menu or not. ASK FOR IT! It's crunchy rice from the bottom of the pot. It is delicious when served with GHEIMEH on the top. It might be the top appetizer (or meal) in the cities! The hot tea is sublime, as is the iced tea. We're there almost every Sunday. Say hi!